Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Future of Public History - Where is it Going?

This week’s readings ask us to think about the future of public history. Just as the public we work with is constantly evolving, so too do public history professionals need to adapt to the different ways that people think about history and the world around them. While we need to be mindful of the specific needs of each place, “office” and public historians also need to be aware that the greatest immediate need is a nuanced approach to history.

            Several prominent historians including Gary Nash and David Thelen participated in a study on behalf of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) to examine the effectiveness of the National Park Service’s (NPS) history programs. What they found was shocking. While a large number of programs were living up to the expectations of what constitutes “good history,” these historians also found that respondents collectively agreed that history in the NPS is “endangered” (16). The historians who conducted the study argued that those working in the NPS profession need to be professionally trained in the academy. Additionally, “office” historians need to play more of a role in strengthening the NPS through collaborative work.

            In the same way that the study of the NPS called for much-needed changes, James Chung, Susie Wilkening, and Sally Johnstone envisioned the future of museums. As technology becomes ever-prevalent, women’s place in the work force is expanding, and the energy crisis continues, these events will all play a role, according to this study, that will shape how museums will contribute to the global community. These authors envision that future museums will play a role in helping people understand their role in societal shifts and “be oases of the real in an increasingly virtual world” (43).

            Major American cities such as Philadelphia have struggled to adapt to the very real changes in the nation’s cultural sector, particularly due to the Great Recession. The study did find that the most attended cultural institution was history, with over five million visitors. This says quite a bit about our role as public historians. With many Americans looking to major cities as a platform to learn both about national and local/urban histories, it provides hope that the desire to learn about the past is not gone. It also goes to assert the premise in Rosenzweig and Thelen’s The Presence of the Past that Americans are most trusting of museums when it comes to learning about history.

            Thus, Americans still continue to look to the public history sector as an important authority in how they understand their history. It is time that major institutions such as the NPS be more open to presenting historical nuances and controversies. The American public is certainly not given enough credit for their understanding of their own history. What I would like to see in the future is more of an emphasis on cooperation between museums in the international community. In an increasingly connected world, it only serves to the benefit of the American public history sector to create bridges with other institutions. It does not serve in our interest to become insular, for that leaves institutions and the public isolated from the nuance that is necessary to conducting “good history.” 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Public History as Labor

This week’s readings introduced us to the living history museum, its living history performers, and their role in the larger work force. The historian Amy Tyson examined the Historic Fort Snelling, a living history museum in Minnesota, in The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines. In her study Tyson coined the term “emotional/public history proletariat” to explain the idea that while historic sites were entrusted with educating the public, they were also responsible for providing personalized customer service and positive interactions with visitors. In this way, living history performers were just as much a part of the general cultural work force and were subject to many of the tensions and competition common to the workplace environment. Tyson’s principle argument is that workers in cultural institutions seek to maintain a self-identity rather than adhere to the collective identity “embedded in the larger workplace culture” (Tyson 24). This is seen in various examples throughout Tyson’s study, particularly in her examination of the relationship between living history performers. Many sought to maintain their autonomy as they developed various skills specific to their character that would set them apart from their coworkers. In seeking to solidify an identity for themselves, tensions arose when workers competed with one another to maintain a foothold at Historic Fort Snelling. Methodologically, Tyson’s work is reminiscent of Cathy Stanton’s The Lowell Experiment, which Tyson cites heavily throughout. Tyson, like Stanton, conducted an ethnographic study of workers at these respective historic sites. Tyson, however, immersed herself as a living history performer during her job at the Fort. Stanton called for public historians to be reflexive and understand that they are not exempt from the various forces that we look for in visitors. Tyson responded to this call, particularly in her explanation of her quasi-conflict with a fellow coworker. In Chapter 4, Tyson talked about when she was reprimanded by a coworker for forgetting her shoes during her “performance.” Tyson writes that, “Although being subject to this kind of surveillance was upsetting in and of itself, what was especially upsetting to me was that I was made to feel alienated for doing something that I had felt was a minor but nonetheless thoughtful contribution to the larger organizational goal…” (Tyson 132). This situation highlighted that Tyson was not exempt from the workplaces forces that made her feel excluded and shamed. Tyson’s immersion in the situation of her subjects provided an excellent element to better understanding the taxing emotions of the cultural sector, particularly at this site. Tyson’s work extended Stanton’s study at Lowell. However, while I am a proponent of self-reflection as a public historian, I wonder if Tyson was too emotionally invested in her subjects and if that negatively colored her ability to write her research conclusions. But perhaps I am being too harsh - after all, she did state that she wanted to demonstrate how this work could become emotionally taxing, which Tyson did effectively.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Can the scholar's history be the public's history?"

This week’s readings provide fodder for understanding the ways in different which histories are told at various sites. The anthropologist Cathy Stanton delved into Lowell National Historical Park (NHP) in her study. Stanton’s The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City is an ethnographic study of the rituals that surrounded the Park’s creation and its later functioning roles. Like many other American towns and cities in the 1960s, Lowell was experiencing the effects of deindustrialization. As a measure of economic and cultural revitalization, the city of Lowell, “found new ways to yoke public and private investment together in aid of turning the city’s fortunes around” (5). Stanton takes an interesting approach in her study. She analyzed the performative nature of “history-making processes” and the role of public historians in creating interpretations for exhibits in Lowell where present-day actors were struggling to recapture a nostalgic view of the past.

Stanton, in particular, focuses on the ethnic demographics of Lowell throughout the twentieth century and the ways in which Lowell NHP’s leaders struggled to reconcile this history with the exhibit. Patrick Mogan, superintendent of schools in Lowell at the time, was heavily involved in revitalizing Lowell by turning to its past, but he resisted focusing on the conflicts that arose between different ethnic groups. While audiences were quite open to the nuances and challenges that this history demonstrated, Mogan was resistant to the idea. Stanton writes that, “Despite Mogan’s personal disapproval of interpretations that included emphasis on conflict or tension, the new social historians associated with the project as consultants and researchers were able to connect the plan with their own more critical focus on ethnic, immigrant, family, and labor histories” (89). Stanton fleshed out the controversies that arose as different groups sought to tell conflicting stories about their past.

            Similarly, the historian Gary Nash described the tensions of the National Park Service’s (NPS) exhibit on the Liberty Bell and the President’s House here in Philadelphia. The Liberty Bell was originally housed in Independence Hall, but was moved across the street in 1976. In the late 1990s, the NPS, in service of the 1997 General Management Plan that wished to create “a new VISION for the park in the twenty-first century,” worked to create a new exhibit for the Liberty Bell (Nash 76). The Liberty Bell was within steps of where several important American figures had not only lived, but owned slaves. Nash, along with other prominent historians and concerned Americans, contested the story that the NPS was telling about liberty and freedom within the confines of the Liberty Bell when ignoring the very real presence of slavery in the Philadelphia in the early republic.

            A consensus at both Lowell NHP and various sites at the NPS in Philadelphia was met. An important lesson taken from these two instances is that the public is much more open to historical nuance than perhaps they are given credit for. The general public wants to be involved in the history-making process, as evidenced by the outcry that came from Philadelphians and the national public in response to the NPS’s exhibit on the Liberty Bell. It seems from these readings that contention arises just as much, if not more, within the academic community rather than between the public and academia. Public historians struggle to find consensus with one another. This may be one of the reasons that Stanton’s book is so important to the field of public history. Her self-conscious analysis of public historians delved into the processes and influences that seep into the history-making process. Public historians should not consider themselves exempt from many of the influences that work into the lives of the general public. We need to be just as much, if not more, aware of how these processes seep into our own professional outlook.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

“Historical curation is much, more than a professional practice. It is a social one…”

        The overarching theme of this week’s readings is the presentation dynamics of museum exhibits. Tammy Gordon and Ken Yellis, authorities on the subject, offer a study of exhibitionary practices in cultural institutions throughout the United States. Gordon’s Private History in Public examined the various forms of exhibitions, namely community, entrepreneurial, and vernacular. In all three forms, it is apparent that audience is key in how these exhibitions are displayed. Gordon explained quite concisely that, “Historical curation is much, much more than a professional practice. It is a social one, a practice in which strangers discuss their own views of the past with one another” (Gordon 4).
As highlighted in Ken Yellis’ “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars” however, issues can often arise when there are conflicting viewpoints in the investment of history in this “social practice.” Yellis focused on artist Fred Wilson’s 1992-1993 Mining the Museum exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society. A departure from traditional exhibitions, Wilson crafted an exhibit that utilized unexplored artifacts presented in a nonlinear fashion. Yellis wrote that such an exhibition was an exercise in presenting an “old story” in a fresh way with differing perspectives. Yet, when the story was told in a new way at the Wilson exhibit, some visitors left feeling angry. Similarly, the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay has been cited as one of the most contentious exhibits in the field of public history. The producers of innovative stories are opening themselves up to a challenging field, particularly because consumers can leave feeling alienated and discomforted.
So, how are we as proto-public historians to react and respond to these very evident challenges? Firstly, conversations with prospective audiences must be central to any public history project. Additionally, evaluating past projects can and should serve as models for future endeavors. Gordon and Yellis’ studies are peppered with examples of past exhibits that illuminate the successes and failures of interacting with audiences. Self-evaluation is equally important. Yellis evaluated his own project Mixed Blessings: The Complex Social Life of Cliff Swallows at Yale University, where he presented surprisingly honest conclusions about the results.
These questions are foundational to our oral history projects. How are we to exhibit the final product? Our informants are the other half of the “shared authority,” but we also have the responsibility to ensure that their stories are appropriately exhibited. For me, this is one of the most daunting challenges about our work in Mantua. Obtaining the results of our oral history findings will catapult this conversation further, but it is an important question to pose. Ultimately, evaluating this project at the semester’s close will serve as an experiential model for future projects, as well as allow us exercise important skills that challenge us to think about what is effective public history.    

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Conceptualizing the urban landscape as an inheritance confers on its heirs an entitlement to control its destiny." - Andrew Hurley

           At the center of this week’s readings, we are introduced to the idea of the urban setting as a ground ripe with possibilities for histories to be unearthed. The sheer magnitude of the swift changes seen in large metropolis areas over time goes to show the possibilities that the power of place can have in using the environment as a larger classroom for conversation about the significance of space and location. Andrew Hurley’s Beyond Preservation explores these themes, tracing the history of “bottom-up” history and the history of federal legislation that transformed how historic preservation was conducted in the United States. The bulk of Hurley’s study looks at public history successes in Old North St. Louis in addition to other urban areas throughout the country, but Hurley warns that the failures of public history projects often happen, “because the interpretive schemes […] do not speak directly to the challenges contemporary residents face and to the kind of places they want to create” (Hurley 95).

            Dolores Hayden similarly articulates in Urban Landscapes as Public History issues of identity, gender, race, etc. had been largely ignored in the understanding of urban environments. Hayden calls her readers to action by identifying the problem of the “entire urban landscape” needs to be studied, rather than exclusively focusing on remaining physical structures. Successfully including this in public history projects helps to create the urban environment as a vital part of American history (Hayden 11).

            Placed together, Hayden and Hurley highlight the benefits and challenges on looking at the urban landscape as a powerful place to conduct history. Evidently, their studies provide important insights into how our class conducts our project with the residents of Mantua. Hurley writes that the history of the urban landscape offers an “inheritance” to its residents. One of my primary concerns lies in the issue of defining what place means to the informants of our oral histories. We are aware of the immediacy of the impact they want to make now, but what is the legacy they wish to leave behind? It may be worth discussing in future classes among us to see how we look to Mantua’s story as an American story. This may perhaps be a theme that we wish to tackle as we move forward. By thinking about the Mantua story as an American story, we can further work towards a “shared authority” with a larger audience.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Redefine and Redistribute Intellectual Authority"

We intend to create a web tool for the Mantua Civic Association (MCA) that is guided by community concerns to document the histories of Mantuans for the purposes of empowerment in the faces of current expansionism in the neighborhood.

By the end of our third class, the six of us had drafted a mission statement to guide our oral history project in Mantua. This exercise was one that brought us out of the classroom directly onto the field that would steer our interactions and goals with Mantua’s community members. The preliminary stages of this project have proved that we are grappling with a political dimension, which contributes heavily to the challenges of not only this project, but more broadly in the field of public history. How are we to address active and inherent power structures in this particular place through the lens of oral histories?
In much the same way that our mission statement navigated our theoretical discussions to the practical, scholar Michael Frisch similarly writes that theories are heavily grounded in practice. Furthermore, Leon Fink’s contact with the Cooleemee Historical Association (CHA) illuminate issues of the uses of history in specific places and the “impressive harnessing of history to community identity” (Fink 120). Many of my concerns entering this project are highlighted in Fink’s study, particularly in his treatment of the participants involved in crafting the history of the southern working class. As is made evident in Fink’s article, history “gets done” regardless of whether or not historians are actively involved in the process. This is made clear through Cooleemee’s adopted community members Jim and Lynn Rumley. Through oral histories and research, the Rumleys sought out to reclaim the roots of a working-class town in much the same way as the case studies presented in Pennsylvania in Public Memory. Fink's study illuminated Frisch's idea that the CHA failed to "redefine and redistribute intellectual authority" (xx). What was left were often racially charged interpretations and the pitfalls of relying on nostalgia, not to mention a failed relationship between the historian and the public.
Ultimately, oral histories are a dual product of subject and the historian. One of the challenges is to highlight the power structures at play, but also ensure that our subjects do not become alienated from us. As discussed throughout the course of this class, this is the ultimate struggle of engaging in public history work. It will be compelling to see how we earn the trust and form relationships with the people of Mantua.  

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Roots, Issues, and Themes of Public History

This week's readings provide a fundamental framework to understanding the relationship between the general public and the public historian, particularly in how this relationship has transformed over the course of several decades. These selected texts emphasize the role of public history in constructing public historical narratives - that their voices are a very real force in crafting the fluid and perpetually changing memorialization process.

We are introduced and guided through these ideas quite convincingly in Rosenzweig and Thelen's The Presence of the Past. Their analysis of a national survey demonstrates that the American public forges very personal relationships with the past, whether through the media, museums, books, family, etc. This study was fundamental in debunking the idea that Americans are passive participants of the past, a tenant that may have emerged from the general passivity attributed to traditional history teaching in American classrooms.

These personal relationships to the past are fleshed out and given a focalized study in Carolyn Kitch's Pennsylvania in Public Memory. Kitch's examination of Pennsylvania's industrial history raises questions of how local identity and history intersect in the establishment of industrial heritage sites. In much the same way that heritage sites consider the regional identity in their narratives, such a process, "reframe[s] local identity for the people who live in it, creat[ing] a rhetorical bridge between regional character and nationality..." (42).

Similarly, Tyrrell's study of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (MVHA) highlights the organization's shifts throughout the early twentieth century - ones that focused on regionalism and its connections to a broader American identity. While not without its tensions, the MVHA forged relationships between professional and amateur historians, a service of collaboration among regional experts.

Collaboration between the public and historians is explored in Denise Meringolo's tracing of the beginnings and meanings of public history's major tenants. Rather than attempting to legitimize the field as others have done before her, Meringolo seeks to trace the field's roots.

Together, these texts highlight the important themes and issues that arise in the practice of public history. As demonstrated in Kitch's study, the memories and connections of a group's past to their region is often in tandem with how heritage sites and memorials derive their meaning. This displays the active role that the public plays in constructing and voicing their history. For me, this raises some questions as to the ways in which public historians connect to the communities they serve. First, public historians and Americans are not immune to larger national narratives. A positive, negative, or ambivalent response or attitude to this narrative is nonetheless a response. Thus, how are public historians to reconcile local histories with broader themes? Rosenzweig and Thelen address this issue in regards to minority groups whose history has been largely ignored and misrepresented in American history and life. This issue is incredibly relevant to this semester's oral history project with select residents of Mantua. In witnessing these members actively tell and engage us in their history, who and what do we represent as young public historians in the process? Furthermore, how and to what level are bridges of trust created? In reading Pennsylvania in Public Memory, these were just some questions that I hoped would become clearer in Kitch's study as well as we grow throughout the semester's discussions and projects.